The latest attempt by the government to carve out 260,000 rai of Sor Por Kor land plots out of Thap Lan National Park has sparked concerns about the potential misuse of national resources to fulfil the administration's populist promise to hand out land to local villagers.
The attempt by the Ministry of Environment to revoke the protected status of some plots within the park that stretches between Nakhon Ratchasima and Prachin Buri was brought to light by the Sueb Nakasathien Foundation on Jan 26.
The well-respected conservation group publicly warned that the move goes against the 20-year National Strategy, which sets out to increase the nation's forest cover to 35%, as well as the National Forest Policy, which mandates the designation of at least 25% of the nation's forests as natural reserve.
It also warned that the conversion of the forest reserve into Sor Por Kor plots will set a precedent that will pave the way for similar conversions to take place in the future, exposing more natural reserves to abuses by developers.
The Sor Por Kor land policy came about in 1975 to help poor, rural farmers earn enough money to sustain themselves. Under the scheme, the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives would distribute degraded forest plots to landless farmers so they could engage in small-scale farming, with the condition that the plots must not be transferred to others and are not misused for commercial reasons.
In the lead-up to the election last year, various politicians, including Thamanat Prompow from the Palang Pracharath Party and his progressive counterparts from the Move Forward Party, promised to allow the conversion of Sor Por Kor certificates into full title deeds, allowing their holders to transfer the plot, use it as collateral to secure loans, develop it for commercial use.
While the move is seen as a necessary update to the obsolete and unrealistic Sor Por Kor programme, critics have warned against handing out title deeds to plots within natural reserves, saying it will open the door for property developers to take control of land, which won't otherwise be available on the market.
The fear is not baseless. Over the past few decades, a large number of Sor Por Kor plots have been seized by various investors, many of whom are politicians.
The plan to carve out commercial land from Thap Lan National Park is just one of the problems brought on by the populist policy.
On Feb 2, Capt Thamanat, as Agriculture Minister, ordered officials across the country to catalogue condominiums, resorts and other private properties which were built on Sor Por Kor land. The idea is, he said, that the law will be revised to allow these businesses to "rent" the plots instead.
Capt Thamanat has been particularly aggressive in pushing the policy forward. Last month, he handed out Sor Por Kor plots to 25,000 farmers. He also promised to review the Sor Por Kor certificates granted to 1.6 million people, covering some 22 million rai of land, within five years.
These attempts show politicians are not reluctant to dig into protected natural reserves to fulfil their election campaign. The question is, are there enough safeguards in place to prevent investors from misusing public Sor Por Kor plots?
Without safeguards to prevent Sor Por Kor plots from falling into investors' hands, this populist pledge will pave the way for investors to privatise public land at the expense of the environment.